YWI: New Initiatives for Women and Girls of Color in DC and Beyond

“We have been very intentional to make sure that organizations that are connected to communities and girls of color are at the table,” said C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., Vice President of Programs for the Washington Area Women’s Foundation (WAWF), when talking with Philanthropy Women recently about the launch of the Young Women’s Initiative (YWI).

A Fair Chance, a new report from the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, provides key statistics that map out the problems needing to be addressed for women and girls of color, such as high suspension rates in school.

This connectedness to the community is a big factor in what makes YWI a powerful vehicle for youth empowerment for girls of color as well as for transgender and non-gender conforming youth.

“We’ve also been in conversation with the D.C. government and the mayor’s office, to make sure that pieces of legislation for women and youth of color are supported,” added Mason.

The connections with the community extend to the national level. One of the speakers at the launch, Kalisha Dessources, Director of the National Coalition for Young Women’s Initiatives and a former advisor to President Obama’s work for women and girls, spoke of how WAWF’s launch is one in a series that will take place across the country. These different YWI initiatives will be led by six other women’s foundations who joined Prosperity Together, the Obama Administration’s coalition of women’s funds and foundations pushing extra hard for advancements for young women and girls of color. Launches of YWI initiatives are also happening in Memphis, Western Massachusetts, Dallas, Birmingham, Minnesota, and California.

“We’re bringing new allies to the table,” said Dessources. “And expanding what allies look like — to corporations, to national philanthropies, to local businesses. We need to make sure that the voices of girls of color are heard around the country.”

“Young women and girls of color were more likely to report not feeling safe walking to school,” said Mason, in talking about examples of how WAWF puts boots to the ground to address problems for young women and girls of color. “So how do we make sure that girls feel safe in their neighborhoods?”

One way YWI is combatting that problem is by working with the local city council in D.C. to introduce legislation to end street harassment. Council Member Nadeau introduced the measure in February, which would mandate the training of city employees about street harassment and how to address it.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason, Vice President, Programs, Washington Area Women’s Foundation, HyeSook Chung, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, President & CEO, Washington Area Women’s Foundation, Storme Gray, Program Officer, Washington Area Women’s Foundation

I offered my appreciation to Mason for the initiative’s inclusiveness of youth who are questioning their gender or transitioning to another gender. As a clinical social worker who welcomes referrals from the Rhode Island Youth PRIDE, an advocacy and support organization for LGBTQ youth, I am aware of how important it is to highlight the needs of this population.

“We have been operating in a very binary space in terms of gender and how we support gender nonconforming youth,” said Mason. “So what I’m excited about is that all these initiatives are doing the work to be gender inclusive.”

Mason noted that “the data that the city collects on transgender youth is very limited,” which adds to the challenge of inclusion, but YWI has done and will continue to media creation to help learn about the range of gender experiences for youth. As part of YWI, a storytelling initiative will be produced and disseminated on a regular basis. “We are profiling a range of young women, including transgender youth. We will be rolling a story out a month.”

Mason emphasized the way that YWI is led by young women of color, a big shift from the way foundations typically operate. “The traditional model is that adults tell young people what to do,” said Mason. “With YWI, young women were able to define the space for themselves. We allowed them to tell us what it means to be safe in the community. We let young people take the lead in helping to shape the initiative, and I think that’s the right approach.”

Mason added that on the individual level, the experience for young women and girls of color participating in YWI is a life-enhancing experience. “Being a part of YWI is an amazing leadership opportunity. The women and girls who participate will be able to use their voice to make change in their communities.”

More from the press release:

On May 24, Washington Area Women’s Foundation officially launched the Young Women’s Initiative, a city-wide effort to improve life outcomes and increase opportunities for young women, girls, transgender women, and gender non-conforming youth of color between the ages of 12-24. With over 200 community leaders, activists, government officials, philanthropists and young girls in the audience, The Women’s Foundation shared the purpose of the Initiative, including key statistics about the state of women and girls in the District of Columbia, and ended the program with a poignant and powerful panel of youth who shared their unique experiences in the District.

We cannot talk about the needs of, and the opportunities for, young women and girls in DC, without being explicit about the fact that girls and young women, transgender women, and gender non-conforming youth of color face barriers and challenges that many of us, including me, a straight, white cisgender woman, have never faced and will never face,” said Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, President & CEO, Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason, Vice President, Programs, Washington Area Women’s Foundation, presented statistics from The Foundation’s new report “A Fair Chance: Improving Outcomes and Reducing Barriers to Success and Opportunity for Girls, Young Women, Transgender Young Women and Gender Non-Conforming Youth of Color in DC.” Girls and women of color in the District experience higher rates of poverty, homelessness, teen pregnancy, and more involvement in the juvenile justice system and are at a greater risk for in-school disciplinary actions and suspension.

“The fact that you invited me and want to partner with government agency speaks volumes because again, we cannot do this alone,” said HyeSook Chung, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. “The Women’s Foundation is committed to racial equity, as we are, and to building the leadership of girls and young women who will be the future.”

“Last night was a powerful and inspiring moment for the organization. It was a reminder of the wisdom and courage that our young women possess, and a reaffirmation that we have chosen the right time to launch our Young Women’s Initiative,” said Storme Gray, Program Officer, Washington Area Women’s Foundation. “I’m so appreciative of the young women on the stage and in the audience who spoke their truths with great authenticity and power. It was an amazing sight to see.”

Community leaders and partners can get involved in the Young Women’s Initiative, to build solutions to embolden and support the young women and girls in DC, in several ways. They can nominate a young woman to join the Young Women’s Advisory Council. Nominations are still open, and will be through June 1st. The Women’s Foundation is creating opportunities for girls to lead, and asks that you to nominate a dynamic young woman to participate in this great opportunity. Another way to get involved would be to make a donation to the Washington Area Women’s Foundation to support the Young Women’s Initiative.

A full video of the Young Women’s Initiative launch is here: 


Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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